How to Stop Punishing Yourself for Past Mistakes

Punishing yourself

True justice is paying only once for each mistake

How often do we overlook the above aphorism as we repeatedly revisit past mistakes, injuries, and confrontations?  There are times I lie sleepless and recall arguments I had with college sweethearts, high school teachers, and even the grade school bully. 

What do I get for my trouble?  Sometimes I experience that all-too-familiar wave of panic, other times an uneasy stomach or a rapidly beating heart; that feeling is almost always accompanied by guilt, resentment, or both.  The experience never benefits me, and I’ve come to realize I need to learn how to stop punishing myself for the past.

Why Do I Keep Punishing Myself for Past Mistakes?

From a young age, society conditions us to retain our flaws and mistakes in two significant ways: by example and through confrontation.

The first form of conditioning is by example; we see and hear our parents do it every day.  Your dad forgets to take the trash out after dinner; your mom gets angry and calls him on it.  But instead of saying: “Dear, your forgot the trash”, she says: “You forgot the trash again!  You NEVER remember to take it out!” Now your dad doesn’t deal with the current situation, rather he relives every time he forgot.  He feels guilt and frustration well up, he becomes defensive, and the argument begins. 

The second form of conditioning is more direct; someone will be displeased and say: “How many times do I have to tell you…” Then we relive each of our past mistakes and feel the guilt, the pain, and the frustration.

By the time we’re in high school (if not long before), we’ve become so conditioned that we put ourselves through the ringer.  We don’t need anyone else to do it to us; we start repunishing ourselves. 

You run late for work after school, again.  Instead of focusing on today’s tardiness, you relive each time you have been late.  The panic and guilt start to build, and build, and build as you revisit each transgression.  When you finally get to work you have rehashed every time you have been late to work, and you re-experience all of the negative energy from each time.

The worst part of the situation, however, is that we don’t let anything go.  We retain all of this emotional poison and add the new stuff.  Then, the NEXT time something happens, we get to revisit it all AGAIN.  And the cycle continues because we have great memories and consciences.  We make a mistake, we judge ourselves, we find ourselves guilty, and we punish ourselves. 

No wonder we go through our lives feeling defensive, guilty, and uncertain.

How to Stop Punishing Yourself for Past Mistakes

Breaking this cycle and learning how to stop punishing yourself for past mistakes is possible. The journey may initially seem daunting, pushing against everything we’ve been conditioned to believe. But with persistence, we can replace these patterns with healthier ones. Here’s a process that can help stop self-punishment:

1. Acknowledge and own the mistake.

This not only calms us but gives us some power over the situation.  If something “isn’t our fault”, then how can we take action to correct the situation?  We can’t.  By accepting responsibility for a situation, we make ourselves “response-able” (thanks to Steven Covey for this phrase).

2. Identify the mistake.

Analyze the situation and see exactly what caused the undesired outcome.  It could have been a simple typo, it could have been procrastination, it could have been a misunderstanding, it could have been an omission, etc.  Whatever the source of the problem, we need to identify it as clearly and completely as possible.

3. Correct the problem.

Implement a new system to avoid omissions, determine where our scheduling technique broke down, etc.  Make sure that, to the best of our ability, we have implemented a solution that should prevent the same (or a very similar) mistake from recurring.  Be proud of this accomplishment – it enables us to let go of our disappointment, guilt, frustration, fear, anger, etc.

4. Move on.

Obviously, this is harder than it sounds.  However, our preparation above has led us to a position where we can honestly tell ourselves that we know what happened, we don’t like what happened, and we have fixed the problem that led to it occurring.  By taking both responsibility and action, we create a powerful combination that allows us, with a bit of discipline, to live in the present and not rehash the past.

If we find ourselves trying to rehash a past mistake, it is important to STOP.  Observe what we are doing, identify the problem triggering this response, and remind ourselves of the solution we implemented to stop that problem from repeating.  Then focus on our solution and a couple of instances where our solution has led to positive outcomes. 

As we train ourselves to make this part of our process, we’ll be pleasantly surprised to find this easier and easier to accomplish.

21 thoughts on “How to Stop Punishing Yourself for Past Mistakes”

  1. Forrest, this is a great post. It is right that it is human nature to dwell on the past in the same way as it is human nature to procrastinate.

    We must remember that we can’t change our past but can change our future. We don’t walk around backwards, as if you want to get to where you are going you need to look forwards not back.

    Nice blog, taking a look around…

  2. Great article! Reliving past mistakes and “shoulding” ourselves over them takes all our creative energy out of the present moment, where it actually belongs. We can’t change the past, we can’t argue with it – it’s over. But we sure can make the most conscious decisions available to us, right in the present moment. And that includes decisions about where to direct our energy!


  3. Forrest,

    Awesome post. I’ve spent a lot of time releasing myself from my past “solutions” and I must say, it’s been one of the most beneficial projects I’ve undertaken in my recent life.

    Thanks for this post, and spreading the word about this important concept.

  4. Forrest,

    Thank you for an insightful post. Each of us has made mistakes in our past, and I think each of us can benefit from reflecting on these and learning from them. I have certainly done my fair share of personal reflection on this very blog.

    That being said, we must be careful not to punish ourselves for past actions that cannot be changed. You are absolutely correct in saying we must “move on”. Life is meant to be lived in the present moment, while at the same time honoring the lessons of our past.

  5. Hi Forrest,

    Focusing on solutions will be better than focusing on problems. By acknowledging the problem first and start to identify solution will help our mind to create answers instead of harboring negative thoughts.

    Personal Development Blogger

  6. I enjoyed reading this article. The past is gone. There is no point dwelling over it. Living in the past does not serve a purpose and prevents us from building a brighter and more empowering future. Punishing ourselves over mistakes we have made previously closes our hearts and stops love from flowing freely!

  7. This may be far-fetched and quite hard to accomplish, but I think on a personal level I’m going to have to do it. Granted, people scatter and contact becomes nearly impossible which only makes it more difficult. I’m going to have to find those folks that I may have harmed, that keep haunting my thoughts, and make amends where possible. A simple email to say I’m sorry for such and such may be all that I need. But I really think this would help to heal the wounds. It’s a bit of a daunting task I fear. What if the other party says “too bad” or what not? Maybe that will only make the wound larger, but I think having done all I could, well, what else is there to do.

    I now tend to quickly apologize for something that I said that after thinking about it could have been taken the complete wrong way. And you know. I don’t think about it or worry about it any longer.

    Crazy? Impossible? Not sure. Worth a shot though.

  8. I posted previously but the comment “disappeared” if it shows up, please delete one or the other.

    I’m about to go on a journey to dredge up and destroy some of those ol’ past hauntings. Granted, with folks scattering and contact becoming increasingly difficult, I feel it’s something that I must do. I am going to try and contact those whom I may have harmed, the ones that seem to pop up in the middle of the day without reason, the true “lingerers”. Be it something said or done or not said or not done, I hope this will keep those at bay and empty that spot in my mind.

    It seems daunting and the “What If’s” are a constant, what if they say “too bad” or “whatever”? It may only make the wound bigger, deeper. But I think it will close my wounds. Granted, I’m not going to put myself in a “deadly” situation, but still.

    Crazy? Impossible? Not sure. Worth a shot though.

  9. Guilty as charged. We’ve all been there and you’re right it’s unproductive and potentially destructive behaviour. It can build resentment between spouses and it does not create a positive enviornment for a child to grow up in. Thanks for sharing this.

  10. Great words of wisdom, but might I add also that one of the hardest parts of moving on, is the ability to forgive one self for the past transgression. If you are unable to forgive yourself for something you have done, it will be very difficult to move past it. Your mind will dwell on it, and punish your inner self, whether you realize it or not. It can do this through, repeating the same bad motions over and over and putting you in a bigger hole, depression, thoughts of suicide, cutting, etc. Basically you have to learn when to say “to hell with it” and mean it on the inside and out. Heal yourself mind, body and spirit. Great read, thanks.

    1. Thank you so very much for saying this. I’ve been living in this loop for many years, and digging myself into a deeper hole in the process. It’s only these past months that I started recognising that this behaviour is a vicious circle in reality. Thank you very, very much, I suppose I needed to hear this somewhere.

  11. This was a very amazing post!

    That was the first time that I have read the quote about true justice.

    Put in into my “Powerful Quotes” document!


  12. mine is not really a problem but a regret that i tried to do somthing bad with a good friend and now i just can’t forget it, i keep on punishing my self for what hapned?
    well you said “move on “but it is almost imposible.

  13. Forest, your point is correct, although i feel it depends on the kind of grief you are facing….my mistakes led to me losing the love of my life…..i drove her into someone else’s arms…when i realized my mistakes and begged her to take me back….she said she had moved on….she gave me chances to come back to her…and i did…but i didnt realize my mistake…..and just CANNOT stop thiniking why i didnt realize my mistakes….everyday i build myself but everyday i break down to pieces….my entire future that i could have had…an amazing one…gone and destroyed….i truly wonder if any amount of punishment will be enough for bringing tears to a girls eyes….

  14. I found this a very interesting read, made even more so by the comments and remarks left by other readers.
    Food for thought all of it.

  15. A great mechanism to unleash ourselves from guilt… if we can make it work once, it can work again and again. Thank you :-)

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